Friday, May 15, 2015

In Memoriam: Dr. Carlos de la Torre y Huerta

On this date, Dr. Carlos de la Torre y Huerta was born. He was an eminent Cuban scientist and a pioneer of Antillean natural sciences. This post is a tribute to his career and to his valuable contributions to the Caribbean, but particularly to Cuban natural history and paleontology. In this post, I provide a basic sketch of his life and achievements, with the hope that his lifelong dedication to science is as inspirational to others as he is to me.

Figure 1: Young Dr. Carlos de la Torre y Huerta.
This Photograph was taken circa the late 1880s.

Carlos de la Torre y Huerta was born on 15 May 1858 in the city of Matanzas, on the scenic bay of Matanzas in northwestern Cuba. His mother was Rosa de la Huerta y Escobar, and his father Bernabe de la Torre y Fernandez. His father was a professor of "La Empresa", a college directed by the Guiteras brothers, which young Carlos attended.

Figure 2: De la Torre family house in Calle Rio no. 37, Matanzas city. This house was later converted into a middle school, where I attended from second to fifth grade (photo from Rodriguez, 1928).

From a young age, Carlos showed extraordinary interest in the natural sciences. Although he planned to be a medical doctor he became deeply interested in the natural history of mollusks and everything fossilized. While attending the Institute of Secondary Education of Matanzas (1871) he learned taxidermy, the art of embalming, from the Swiss Guillermo Gyssler, which was a professor there, but most importantly became closely acquainted with Don Francisco Jimeno y Fuentes (fig. 3 left) [Jimeno is also often spelled Ximeno, but I will use the former here]. Don Jimeno was a Matancero erudite and bibliophile who, as a patron, had ties with the Institute. He took a serious interest in young Carlos, who became his protégée. He gave him full access to his book collections and specimens, inciting and feeding the intellect of young Carlos for all natural philosophies. One can say that such relationship deeply fermented Carlos' predisposed interest and passion for science, allowing him to become the sage he was destined to become.

Figure 3: Don Francisco Jimeno on the left, and naturalist Dr. Felipe Poey Aloy on the right. Both among the most distinguished men of 19th century Cuban culture and science. Illustrations from "La Ciencia en Cuba" (1928) and Rodriguez (1958).  

In 1874 he starts medical school, for pharmacology, at the University of Havana, which was founded in 1728 and by then already a scholarly and prestigious institution, where he meets the already acclaimed scientist Dr. Felipe Poey (fig. 3 right). He was then only 16 years old.

During this time, he had assembled and exhibited a small collection of his specimens with the help of Don Jimeno at his father's new college "Los Normales". With the encouragement of Dr. Poey he had begun the serious study of mollusks and their shells; a branch is known as malacology (= conchology), a field of his preference, and what would become his doctorate dissertation.

Figure 4: Tintype of Dr. Carlos de la Torre y Huerta circa 1915 from Wikipedia.

However, by 1876 economical difficulties at his father's college back in Matanzas prompted his return home. He was in his second year of medical school when he became a full-time professor at his father's college. There his genius and excellence for detail began to show. He lectured about Charles Darwin and the new groundbreaking theory of evolution and the new "Darwinism". He also lectured on the evolutionary and revolutionary ideas of Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in contrast. All true paradigm shifts of his era. These he positively supported with his own research on land snails (Cerion), which the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr mentions in his "Population Species and Evolution" (1970:16-17). His teachings and philosophies as professor undoubtedly influenced countless students who later became key personalities in Cuba's history and culture including Pedro E. Betancourt, Carlos M. Trelles Govin, and later Antonio Nunez Jimenez to mention a few.

In 1879, he returned to the University of Havana to resume his medical studies. There along the way, and like many of us, relinquished a medical career to the pursuit of a life of scientific research. He graduated on 22 September 1881. That same year, and among other Cuban scientists including Dr. Poey and Dr. Johannes Gundlach, exhibited and lectured at the International Exposition of Matanzas (1881). He later attended other expos including that of Paris (1900), and geological congresses in Mexico (1906) and Stockholm (1911) (Carbonell, 1928).

Figure 5. Dr. Carlos de la Torre donating mollusk specimens to the Smithsonian institution. Photograph circa 1930's from the Smithsonian science archives.

His achievements, already great, granted him his doctorate in 1883 from the Central University of Madrid in Spain. His dissertation dealt with the geographical distribution of terrestrial and river mollusks of Cuba (ANH, Universidades, 6226, Exp. 8). He then traveled extensively especially around Europe and to the United States, surrounding himself with a plethora of acquaintances in all ecosystems of science.
He taught Natural History in Institue of Secondary Learning in San Juan, Puerto Rico between 1882 and 1885 (ANH, Ultramar, 262, Exp.22) and collaborated with Smithsonian scientists like Paul Bartsch in the identification and classification of Cuban mollusks both fossil and living; worked with Dr. Diller Matthew of the American Museum, Joseph Leidy of the University of Pennsylvania, Barnum Brown and several others regarding fossil mammals (see my post on the Cuban ground sloths). He had collaborated with luminaries likes Antonio Parra, Ramon de la Sagra, Rodriguez Ferrer, Fernandez de Castro, Luis Montane, and Thomas Barbour among many more. All these crucial players in the development of Antillean paleobiology and geology of the 19th and 20th century.

Figure 6. Photograph of Dr. Carlos de la Torre with the Cuban ground sloth specimen mounted at the AMNH in the Cuban National Archive. The bust on the left is that of his professor Dr. Felipe Poey. Circa 1920. He loved to take pictures with this specimen.

In 1886, he became the professor of comparative anatomy at the University of Havana, where his research and explorations were responsible for the study of the Cuban ground sloth Megalocnus rodens Leidy 1868 (originally Myomorphys cubensis of Pomel 1868, matching almost simultaneously with that of Joseph Leidy's).
This discovery so deeply figured into the discussions on the origin of past Caribbean faunas, and whether the Antillean islands were joined to the continental mainland during the Quaternary. This was a hot topic during the first decades of the 20th century. These issues were center matter in geological publications of the time (e. g., Hayes et al., 1901) and his own discourses (1909-1910).

Figure 7: Dr. de la Torre and his priced ground sloth Megalocnus rodens specimen mounted at the AMNH. He presented this specimen at the 11th Geology Congress in Stockholm, Sweden, 1911. From Carbonell (1928) pg. 278. Photograph circa 1916.

He was responsible for gathering the evidence that supported the presence of Mesozoic rocks in Cuba, reported since the explorations of Alexander Humboldt in his visits to Cuba in the early 19th century (Humboldt, 1826; Rodriguez Ferrer, 1876). He localized and published on the Jurassic formations in Pinar del Rio in western Cuba (1909-1910), where he discovered magnificent marine reptiles and mollusks called ammonites (like that on fig. 9) within the black shale of the San Cayetano and Vinales formations.

The importance of these discoveries transcends, and one hundred years later this fossil still serves as evidence of the life that inhabited the shallow seas that were to become the Cuban archipelago 160 million years later. It was definitive proof of the presence in Cuba of Jurassic rock beds, so formerly criticized by the earlier reports of Hayes, Spencer, and Vaughan (1901; see also 1918).

Figure 9: Fossil Ammonite (Mollusca) Perisphinctes cf. plicatilis? measuring 16 cm in diameter (see Judoley and Furrazola, 1968) from Jagua Fm, Pinar del Rio, Cuba. Courtesy of L. P. Orozco, 2002.  

Dr. de la Torre was a son of Matanzas' cultural golden age. He was respected and well regarded by his students and colleagues. Those who knew him called him "the sage without white hair" and considered him a great educator, orator, candid and funny. He was surely a renaissance man of multiple talents, bohemian, even a politician during the early Republican years at the side of  Maximo Gomez, one of the great generals of the Cuban War of Independence.

During the later years of his life, and still very much active, took on the position as dean of the University of Havana following in the footsteps of his professor Felipe Poey. He died gracefully on 19 February 1950 after a long and fruitful career. With him ended the first cycle of Cuba's geoscience golden age.

Dr. de la Torre is among one of those scientists that are easy to admire. In my case, even much before I planned to become a geologist/paleontologist. This I think was intensified and influenced by my intimate inhabitation in what used to be his house, his things, and his city. In exactly those places, but nearly a century later, I first took my first steps into the world of natural history and science.

In this way, life can be mischievous by allowing us to coincide in place but not in time, with such significant personalities. Standing exactly where they stood, seen almost what they saw, is a career-propelling, time-traveling experience that I have collected and delighted in since. One can but hope, but the dream, to become someone close to these giants. People who have selfishly devoted their lives to the advancement of science and the education of others for the ideal of "helping all human kind". This may sound corny, but what a dream it is.

I will end thus with a quote from Jose Ingenieros (my translation):

"Life is worth more for the use we make of it, for the work we do. He who counts more years in life has not lived more than he who has felt a strong ideal".


This account of his life draws mostly from two sources listed in the references below. One, titled "Don Carlos de la Torre en la Instituciones de Matanzas" (1959) by Luis Rodriguez Rivero, secretary of the "Lyceum of Matanzas" which published that work. And the second written during his lifetime and titled "La Ciencia en Cuba" by Jose Manuel Carbonell and Rivero (1928) as part of a unique study series on the evolution of Cuban culture. Other, and otherwise unpublished records, come from the PARES archives in Spain, here cited in their original signature.

Carbonell and Rivero, J. M. 1928. La Ciencia en Cuba. Evolucion de la Cultura Cubana. Montalvo y Calvo, La Habana.

Hayes, W. C., T. W. Vaughan, and A. C. Spencer. 1901. Report on a geological reconnaissance of Cuba made under the direction of general Leonard Wood. Government Printing Office, Washington.

Humboldt, A. Von. 1826. Voyageaux regions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent fait in 1799-1804. Gide, Paris: 229-231.

Judoley, C. M. and G. Furrazola-Bermudez. 1968. Estratigrafia y Fauna del Jurasico de Cuba. Academia de Ciencias, La Habana, Cuba.

Mayr, Ernst. 1970. Population Species, and Evolution. Belknap/Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Rodriguez Ferrer, M. 1876, Naturaleza y Civilizacion de la Grandiosa Isla de Cuba. Primera Parte: Naturaleza. Imprenta J. Noguera, Madrid.

Rodriguez Rivero, L. 1958. Don Carlos de la Torre en las Instituciones de Matanzas. Ateneo de Matanzas, Matanzas, Cuba.

Torre y Huerta, Carlos de la. 1909. Excursion cientifica a Vinales, descubrimiento de ammonites del periodo Jurasico en Cuba. Anales de la Academia de Ciencias Medicas, Fisicas, y Naturales de la Habana: 99-103pp.

Torre y Huerta, Carlos de la. 1910. Excursion a la Sierra de Jatibonico: Osamentas fosiles de Megalocnus rodens o Mymoprhus cubensis. Sesion del 10 de Junio de 1910.
Imprenta Militar, La Habana

Vaughan, Wayland. 1902. Notes on Cuban fossil mammals. Science, 15 (369): 148-149.

Vaughan, Wayland. 1918. The geologic history of Central America and West Indies during the Cenozoic time. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 29: 615-630.

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